Mention the Civil War and most people will envision sweeping battle scenes, cavalry charges, the Rebel yell, and the theme song to Gone With the Wind. What they generally do not think of is the extreme hardships faced by soldier and civilian, North and South alike, the lasting damage done to the countryside, local economies, and to an entire generation’s psyche. Therein lies the importance of Michael C. C. Adams’ Living Hell.
It is a human trait to romanticize the most extreme tragedies. It is how humans recover from experiencing the worst we can inflict on each other. It was done after World War I and World War II and especially after the Civil War. We know war is awful, but we gloss over the true extent of its terribleness and focus instead on an idealized image of soldiers marching off to glory and returning, battered and filthy but alive, to a hero’s welcome. With its use of actual letters and first-person accounts of eyewitnesses, Living Hell walks readers through a soldier’s evolution from excited and eager recruit to physically disfigured and mentally damaged soldier and the lasting trauma for soldier and family members alike. It is a brutal picture of the disgusting chaos of the soldiers’ camps, the absolute horror wrought by new battle techniques and weaponry, the complete abandonment of any wartime conventions and the psychological impact of total war. He covers the unimaginable scenes in Army hospitals, the gruesome sites of the countryside after a battle, and much, much worse. It is as realistic a picture of what the Civil War was like as one can get, and it is not pretty.
To be fair, most people understand that war is never pretty, and the Civil War was as bad as it could get. However, what sets Living Hell apart is that Adams puts aside the rose-tinted glasses that comes with the passage of time to show the true hardships by using eyewitness documentation. He lets the soldiers and civilians speak for themselves, and it is a stark picture indeed.
Separated into sections such as camp life, battles, post-battle details, the challenges facing the injured, civilian life, and the mental damage from total war, Living Hell delves into the details of each main topic and does so without obscuring anything. This means that this book is most definitely not for the faint-of-heart or easily disturbed. Readers should be careful about eating before, during, or after reading any section because it is as gruesome as gruesome can get.
Every aspect of Living Hell is horrifying and yet so utterly fascinating. Adams’ use of soldiers’ own words is particularly effective, as they leave nothing to the imagination in their correspondence or diary entries. War is not sexy, and war is not kind. Anyone who thinks so needs to read Living Hell for an excellent look at the hellishness of modern warfare before, during, and long after the war’s end.